"When I was 12 years old and had been playing tennis for just one year, I looked around and wondered why most of the players were white and male," Billie Jean King recalled during a lunch break at her Leadership Initiative's annual symposium last month. "I remember asking myself, 'Where is everyone else?'"
That was in 1955, and although players representing a multitude of races and genders have since been playing (and winning) on professional tennis courts from the Australian Open to Wimbledon, King still views inclusion as a 'work in progress' for individuals on and off the court. "People from diverse groups often work two jobs. First, it's the job itself and, secondly, it's the job of trying to fit in," King says. "This is exhausting, and has to have an impact on the bottom line."
To combat this, King launched the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI) in 2014, an organization that is already moving the needle forward on issues impacting diversity and inclusion. Founded as part of an effort to challenge the way these differences are seen, and encourage companies, corporations and individuals to embrace diversity for what they contribute to the workforce, King believes that the 'only way for organizations to get the broadest ideas is by including the broadest group of people.' "The alternative, where everybody thinks alike, is unacceptable," King says. "Every person in the U.S. is an immigrant," she continues, "And we need those different perspectives. That is how we find solutions. Just like in tennis, I wouldn't want everyone on my team to just have a great backhand. We need a lot of different skills to win."
It is the tennis court, in fact, that has long provided King with a platform to create change. She was the driving force behind the formation of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973, the same year she threatened to boycott the 1973 U.S. Open if equal prize money were not awarded to both women and men. It still took another 34 years before Wimbledon agreed to do the same for women (in 2007). "But women tennis players still, today, don't receive equal prize money on their tours," King added.
And this level of gender inequality remains pervasive. "The truth is, that despite so many years, women are simply not equally or evenly represented," says Christiane Amanpour, one of the Symposium's Keynote Speakers. "We all know that when women are equally represented, in no matter what field of human endeavor, it makes that field perform to capacity," she continues. "It makes our society healthier, more economically proficient, and in all indicators of human wealth and health, women's equal representation makes a huge difference in the whole community, the whole nation, and the whole world."
So where does the answer to achieving gender equality ultimately lie? King believes it's up to the Millennial generation. "It's the Millennials who are now having the greatest impact on diversity, equality and inclusion," King asserts. According to the Initiative's recent study, conducted in conjunction with Deloitte Research, Millennials' views of diversity and inclusion at their organizations are quite different from that of Baby Boomers and GenXers. "They are getting their organizations to think differently about how to attract talent, interact at work, and redefine priorities," King says.
And the significance of complete equality in the workforce cannot be overestimated. "When women are prominently displayed on platforms, and when women have an equal say in the boardroom, as well as in the executive suite, that will shift the dynamic as well the dialogue," Amanpour adds. "Yes, we need to identify the obstacles and challenges, but we also need to seize the roots outside of this inertia, and I only hope that the progress over the decades to come won't be as slow as those before."
Beyond just holding onto hope, however, one thing that we can all be sure of is that with Billie Jean King championing the cause women, everywhere, will have a better shot at it than ever before.
Lori Sokol, Ph.D. is an educational psychologist and the founder and publisher of Difference Matters magazine.
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